Political Science For Dummies
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Readers who want to learn more about political science than they’d find in a regular textbook should take a look at the ten books listed in this article. They’re not only classics in the field but also still relevant today. My hope is that you pick one or more of the books and decide to not only read it but afterward come to the conclusion that it still matters today.

For example, after reading Aristotle’s Politics, written in the 4th century BCE, you may realize that the book written more than 2,000 years ago is still applicable to politics today. Or after reading The Prince written by Machiavelli in 1513, you may be surprised that Machiavelli’s ideas and conclusions on power can be used to explain Russia’s or China’s foreign policy in the 21st century.

Therefore, in each of the books listed here, you’ll find interesting, often eye-opening or shocking revelations still applicable to today’s world. Do keep in mind that the ten book choices are personal suggestions. Feel free to disagree with my choices. You may even disagree with the conclusions I draw from the books or may find new observations and draw your own conclusions. I hope that you’ll discuss the books with friends or classmates or even recommend them to your book club for future reading materials.

Without further ado, here’s my list of the ten political science books everyone should read.

Politics (335–323 BCE)

Most political scientists consider Aristotle’s book Politics the first real political science book. In this seminal work, Aristotle discussed why people create communities and later on the polis (state).

Aristotle argued that, as members of a community, people enjoy economic and political security and can focus on advancing personally, focusing on more abstract ideas such as what type of political community is best. Suddenly, politics was born.

For Aristotle, the ability to think and philosophize is what makes people happy, not personal wealth or power. People have to take the pursuit of knowledge into politics to be truly happy. This way their thoughts and beliefs can impact actual decision making in the polis. Philosophy and politics have to be fused, and knowledge has to result in action. A good ruler needs to know what’s right and then have the ability to put these policies into place.

Finally, Politics was the first political science work that classified different types of governments. Aristotle wanted to know which type of government was best — a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy. So he created a typology of various forms of governments found in Greece at the time. His conclusions were controversial. Instead of making a case for democracy, Aristotle decided that all forms of governments have merit as long as the ruler is wise and just. So for Aristotle, the best form of government depended on the type of ruler.

The Prince (1513)

The Prince was written by Niccolo Machiavelli in 1513 but wasn’t published until after his death in 1532. It has become one of the most controversial books in the history of political science. The Prince is basically a how-to guide for a ruler on coming to power.

For Machiavelli, it’s all about power, and every action that contributes to the acquisition of more power is ethical and moral. Therefore, ethics and justice aren’t what matter for a ruler but the acquisition of power. Leaders should be concerned about power because only it can guarantee their survival and the survival of the state itself. The best way to maintain power is through the use of force or the threat of the use of force.

In addition, the book discusses the characteristics a successful ruler has to have and the specific policies he needs to follow to maintain himself in power.

Leviathan (1651)

Leviathan, written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651, is another must-read for anyone interested in political theory or philosophy. In the work, Hobbes tried to explain why people desire the creation of a strong centralized state. Hobbes agreed with Machiavelli that life is a pursuit for power. For him, people are self-centered, egotistical, and on a constant quest for power. This results in conflict, and without a strong state, only the strong will survive. Therefore, in a state of nature, with no government present, constant conflict and violence occurs. For this reason, people willingly give up their freedoms for the creation of a state that provides them with security.

Hobbes further argued that the most secure society for a people is an absolute monarchy, where the monarch herself is above the law. For Hobbes, the purpose of a government was to provide security for its citizens and not to advocate for notions such as justice or equality in a society.

Two Treatises of Government (1690)

In many ways, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes were the exact opposites. Hobbes believed in a strong centralized form of government, while Locke advocated for the opposite. In his work Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued that people are actually rational, they want to better their lives, and they want to own property. People are, therefore, peaceful and want to become prosperous. They’re capable of self-rule and self-government. This allows for weak, limited government, providing people with personal freedoms.

Locke argued that people form communities or a state only because of foreign threats and the need for domestic laws and their subsequent enforcement. Only a state, weak and limited in nature, can provide for external and internal security to guarantee against any legal violations and injustices.

Locke even described the government structures that should be in place. He advocated for a legislative to make laws, an executive to enforce the laws, and a judiciary to mediate conflict. In his conclusion, Locke went as far as calling upon people to revolt against any government that’s unable or unwilling to stay true to its purpose.

The Wealth of Nations (1776)

The Wealth of Nations was written by Adam Smith, a Scottish economist, and published in 1776. It has become the bible for people believing in laissez faire (hands-off) capitalism.

Smith argued in his work that the free market should regulate a country’s economy, and government needs to stay out of the economy. Smith believed that, in a few instances, government has a role to play in the economy, but these are very limited. Government functions include protection from foreign nations; therefore, government needs to establish a military force. In addition, government needs to provide for an infrastructure, such as roads and canals, to facilitate economic transactions. Finally, a legal system has to be put in place to make and enforce laws protecting mostly economic transactions in the free market.

The Communist Manifesto (1848)

The Communist Manifesto was written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. In it, the authors outline their concept of historical materialism in which they trace history from feudalism to capitalism and finally Communism. They discuss the concept of class struggle, showing how the working class is consistently exploited by the bourgeoisie and how it becomes impoverished. That, in turn, results in a violent class revolution where the working class will overthrow capitalism and become the ruling class and outlaw private property.

The second section of the work contains demands by the two authors, such as a progressive tax, the nationalization of all property, the abolition of private property, the abolition of child labor, and the right to a free education for all classes. The final section of the work then distinguishes Communism from other forms of socialism.

The American Voter (1960)

The American Voter was written by Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller and Donald E. Stokes, four professors from the University of Michigan. The book was based on the first large-scale study of American voters in the 1950s. The authors wanted to know what Americans based their vote on — issues, candidate images, or something else. The results were surprising and established the Michigan model of voting.

The Michigan model found that most Americans based their vote on partisan identification and not knowledge of candidates and issues. Partisan identification refers to people having an emotional attachment to a political party, which they usually inherit from their parents through a process called political socialization. In other words, voters voted for the Democratic Party candidates because they were Democrats and not because they knew about issues the Democratic Party favored. The Michigan model was the first voting behavior model to discover this.

The model further discovered a group of voters called independents, or people who have no attachment to a political party. According to the study, these independents have the least knowledge of all voters but often decide elections. The study was later duplicated by Donald Stokes and David Butler in Great Britain with similar results.

Man, the State, and War (1959)

Man, the State, and War was published in 1959. In the book, Kenneth Waltz creates the three image or levels of analysis approach to explain causes of war in the international system. Using this approach, Waltz focuses on individuals, nation-states, and the international system itself, in that order. He studies each image and gives explanations of how each can tribute to the outbreak of war.
  • First-image explanations involve individuals such as major leaders or top-level diplomats. Waltz examines how first-image explanations can be used to explain the outbreak of war.
  • Second-image explanations involve nation-states. Here, Waltz studies a country to discover how domestic factors, such as political culture or economic structures, can contribute to conflict in the international system.
  • Third-image explanations focus on the international system. The international system is dominated by anarchy and all nations’ thirst for power to acquire security. This results in conflict between states. Therefore, the international system, anarchic in nature and without a world government to enforce laws and punish aggression, is the major source of conflict for Waltz

Who Governs? (1961)

Who Governs? is one of the best-known books in American political science. It was written by Robert Dahl and published in 1961. In the book, Dahl attempts to rebut elite theorists who claimed that political power in the United States was centralized in a small power elite, which is interconnected and which occupies all positions of power, while most people lacked political power.

To disprove elite theorists, Dahl studied political power distribution in New Haven, Connecticut, to see whether a small elite was running the city and holding all power. He was surprised to find that there wasn’t just one elite but a number of elites or groups competing for political power. One group dominated certain aspects of city politics, such as trash collection, while another one was in charge of another part of the city. This resulted in these elite groups constantly competing for political power and having to bargain and compromise with each other. This is the definition of pluralism as envisioned by James Madison. Therefore, pluralism was at work in New Haven, Connecticut, and there wasn’t one dominant power elite to be found.

Dahl later on coined the term polyarchy, which refers to political systems, such as the U.S. system, that are open and inclusive. Everyone can join elite groups, and their power is limited by the people through free elections.

Who’s Running America? (8th Edition, 2017)

Who’s Running America?, now in its 8th edition, was written by Thomas R. Dye. The book is an example of elite theory, which claims that a small power elite runs the United States. For Dye, however, the position a person holds in an institution puts that person into the elite. In other words, institutional positions are the sources of power. For example, the position of Secretary of State has power attached to it, and whoever holds the position is suddenly a member of the power elite running the U.S. Therefore, all political scientists have to do is identify the institutional power positions in the U.S., and then it’s possible to know not only how many positions exist but who currently holds them.

Dye further argues that some members of the elite can hold more than one position at a time and that the power elite is interconnected through family background, schooling, and even race, religion, and gender.

In the work, Dye finds that there isn’t just one coherent elite in the U.S. but two. They are the conservative Sunbelt Cowboys, for example, George W. Bush, and the more liberal Establishment Yankees, for example, Barack Obama. The two elites agree on major issues such as form of government (democracy) and economic system (capitalism). However, they differ on smaller issues such as tax rates, military spending, and the legality of the death penalty. Sunbelt Cowboys are conservative on economic, social, and foreign policy issues, while Establishment Yankees tend to be liberal on these issues. The two elites usually corelate with political party affiliation, Sunbelt Cowboys being Republicans and Establishment Yankees being Democrats but do not have to. The two elites constantly compete for power and alternate holding positions of power in the U.S.

About This Article

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Marcus A. Stadelmann, PhD, is a professor of political science and chair of the Department of Political Science and History at the University of Texas at Tyler. Along with teaching at universities in California, Utah, and Texas, Dr. Stadelmann has published and given presentations in the fields of American politics and international relations.

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